Folk music, to date, is one of the most widely popular music forms in mainstream society. It has ethnic roots spanning from the heart of the United States, to Asia and Europe.
Folk music is an oral tradition- passed down by being heard by parents, relatives, or just friends. It’s a relatively simple style, used and understood by a great number of people- old and young alike, especially in the lower socioeconomic classes. The concept of folk music is hard to define precisely- it is blurred between different styles of music; it contains aspects from a variety of types of music. Folk is mostly useful in explicating the musical culture of Europe and the Americas before 1920, being valid also in non-western culture, East, South, and West Asia as well- though it is often difficult to decide weather or not a song is folk or otherwise.
Asia and Europe have their own forms and names for folk music as opposed to the more familiar American version. Folk is passed down orally- by listening through generations; in essence, learned by hearing. Popular folk music, as well as jazz, use both oral and written means of transmission. Most folk instrumentalists, such as fiddlers in the US and Scandinavia, can, and do read music. Folk singers may use printed versions of scores and/or sheet music, therefore negating the purely oral traditions. A piece of folk music may be claimed as the property of a folk community, but pieces are usually composed by individuals rather than by a group. In addition to the “ownership” of certain pieces, many folk songs originate outside the folk community. While being passed down, a song may undergo change at the hands of those who learn and teach it. This is a process known as communal recreation. Due to random imperfect learning, and changing trends and influences of the time, there are no standard authentic forms. Sometimes two different variants of a tune or melody could be in two different repertories adopting aspects from whatever repertory it is in.
There is implication that folk music is always used to accompany activities or to help in accomplishing some nonmusical purpose. Although a rather oversimplified definition, folk music accompanies events such as birth, puberty, weddings, funerals, solstice, equinox, planting, and harvest. Folk music is also used for entertainment, to preserve history, and to maintain ethnic diversity. The most widespread genre is the ballad, which is a strophic song, usually dealing with a incident or single plot. Other common ballads include Child ballads- sung in Britain and North America to pentatonic or modal diatonic tunes monophonically in a small number of rhythmic settings, and Broadside ballads who’s words and music were printed on large sheets and sold quickly. Also, the texts to Broadside ballads were often based on incidents in local history or moralistic and sentimental tales. The music to these ballads was often more closely related to art music, and had longer tunes, mainly in major, often accompanied in performance. The singers of folk music are professionals who have undergone training at the hands of masters in order to learn complex subject matter and techniques of improvising. Other important genres, usually with distinct musical styles, include dance music, children’s songs, work songs, and religious music performed outside the framework of the church. Folk also plays a big role in the culture of minorities being used as a device for underscoring ethnicity.
Even though each nation has its own distinctive style, a few characteristics pervade western folk music. The typical melodic form is strophic, a stanza consisting of 2 to 8 lines with 4 being the most common. Relationships among lines vary, progressive form (ABCD) being very common in older English folk song, and reverting forms (ABBA, AABA, ABCA, ABAB) more prominent in recent British material. Similar forms are found in eastern Europe where, however, there is also a tendency to build stanzas from transpositions of a line to various pitch levels. Textural & musical lines almost universally coincide in length. In Western Europe, songs normally have several lines of equal musical length. In Eastern Europe, line lengths are more varied. Children’s songs and sung epics include exceptions in the strophic principal. The unit may be the line, which is repeated and varied up to dozens of times. Children’s ditties may also consist of only one repeated line. They tend to be simple rhythmic and melodic structure, using only 2 3 or 4 tones. The style of children’s songs is similar throughout Europe and is closely related to the style of the world’s simplest tribal music and to that of children’s songs in other cultures. In older repertories, formal variety is greater than in recently developed genres such as English and German broadside ballads, which, as a result of influence from pop music and Protestant church music have more standardization with AABA predominating.